A small one-way path leads to the crest of a snow-covered hill where the Larz Anderson Auto Museum sits in Brookline. The converted carriage house looks like a castle, picked up and moved across the Atlantic from France.
To the left of the carriage house, a small parking lot leads to an arched entryway, where horse drawn carriages once dropped off passengers.
The museum itself, fairly empty on a Thursday afternoon, has dark brown walls and a large rectangular open space in the middle of the main room with high ceilings where cars line either side of the walkway. Visitors could almost imagine Larz and Isabel Anderson, the museum’s namesake and his wife, pulling their cars into the spaces.
The carriage house was built for the Andersons in 1888 on the ground of the Weld Estate in Brookline. Isabel was born in Boston and after receiving her grandfather’s fortune in 1881 when she was five, was deemed the richest female in America. She travelled through Europe where she met Larz Anderson, who was at the time an American ambassador in Rome.
They met in 1896 and were married by 1897.
Museum director Sheldon Steele said the city architect of Boston at the time — Edmund M. Wheelwright — designed the carriage house after the Chaumont-Sur-Loire, a castle in France.
“They travelled and were a part of the American aristocracy,’’ Steele said of the Andersons, she a socialite and he an ambassador. “They saw things in other parts of the world.’’
At the turn of the century, “Paris was bustling with cars,’’ and the Andersons gained an interest in the newfound automobile through their travels, Steele said.
In 1899 the Andersons purchased their first car – a 1899 Winton Phaeton which looks similar to a horse-drawn carriage, except it has an engine in the back. It is still on view at the museum today.
“They purchased a car every year from 1899 to 1948,’’ Steele said. “And then retired them to the carriage house.’’
By the 1920s, the Andersons had quite a collection and began using their lawn to display them for viewing events, which Steele said was the beginning of modern car shows.
This museum continues to host lawn events from May to October, where cars both from the estate and from other collections are put on display for people to view.
Mr. Anderson died in 1937, with Mrs. Anderson outliving him until 1948. Before her death, she made a request – to preserve the couple’s cars.
“Mrs. Anderson’s request was to establish a nonprofit whose mission was the Anderson Collection,’’ Steele said. “It is now regarded as one of the most significant collections of historic cars in the Western Hemisphere.’’
Mrs. Anderson gave the estate — which encompassed their mansion and acres of land — to the Town of Brookline. She then requested that the Veteran Motor Car Club of America take control of the collection with the purpose of immediately establishing a non-profit organization. The VMCCA opened the museum as a non-profit in October 1949.
The mansion that the couple lived was demolished in the 1950s, but the Andersons’s carriage house remains, along with the surrounding lush grounds which visitors can walk through. There is also a pond visitors can ice skate on in the winter, or admire in the spring and summer.
Fourteen of the Andersons’s original 32 cars are on display at the museum in what is considered the oldest car collection in the country, which earned the carriage house a spot on the National Register of Historic Places.
Upon entering the carriage house, visitors first pass a modern Tesla, which may seem odd for a historic auto collection.
But the Larz Anderson Auto Museum hosts more than just the Anderson Collection. This year’s edition of the annual rotating exhibit, which ends in May, is called “Innovation Moves Us: From Steam Age to Our Age – Motoring Marvels Through Time.’’
The exhibit, which features cars that are on loan to the museum, contains cars ranging from a 1902 Stanley Steam car made in Newton, to a 1914 Model T Ford that showcases the innovation of the assembly line. There’s a 1977 Porsche Turbo, and an electric Tesla.
“This is for the person that thinks the Prius is the first hybrid,’’ Steele said, while standing next to an electric charging station from 1908. At the beginning of the 20th century, Massachusetts was a hub of innovation, according to Steele.
“Springfield was the center of the hub,’’ he said as he stood next to a 1904 concept drawing of a car that ran on air alone. “It was like Silicon Valley where people would bring concepts.’’
Right past this drawing are stairs that lead down to the Anderson Collection, where cars are not restored, but preserved.
Restored cars often get new paint, new leather and a whole makeover, according to Steele who said the Anderson Museum doesn’t subscribe to that philosophy.
“There is a raging ongoing debate about restoration or preservation,’’ he said, standing next to a 1907 Fiat. “Something is only original once. You wouldn’t change the creation of a Picasso.’’
The collection’s cars, some of which are more than 100 years old, appear to be in solid condition, and are an interesting visual representation of the history of the automobile – and Boston itself.
Notable cars from the collection include the aforementioned Fiat, which would have been Mr. Anderson’s sporting car, and a 1908 Bailey Electric Phaeton Victoria, which Mrs. Anderson drove. The Phaeton was electric to prevent Mrs. Anderson from having to crank a handle to start the engine, like other cars from the time.
Steele added that Mrs. Anderson was the first woman in Massachusetts to obtain a drivers license.
“Isabel Anderson was quite a woman,’’ he said. “She was very enthusiastic about automobiles and at the forefront of the motoring movement.’’
The most expensive car in the collection, a 1906 Charron-Girodot-Voight, is what the Andersons used for long trips from their home in Brookline to their second home in Washington, D.C. This car was purchased in France, and was driven by their chauffer. It contained amenities like seats that turned into beds, a wash bin, and even a toilet.
The Anderson Collection is an automobile timeline of sorts.
“This is the Holy Grail,’’ Steele said.